By Maria Gregoriou
BEST-SELLING author Jonathan Franzen has made a documentary ‘Emptying the Skies’ based on an article he wrote about the illegal trapping and killing of migratory birds in southern Europe, including Cyprus.
The documentary was recently shown at the Sheffield Docs Film Festival.
It illustrates how 30 million songbirds a year are illegally trapped and killed in the Mediterranean and are destined for the cooking pot. Franzen and the film crew followed the operations of Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) activists, who have been taking direct action against illegal bird trapping for more than two years. The activists travel in spring and autumn each year to areas in southern Europe where poachers are known to set-up trapping equipment.
Franzen’s documentary, directed by Roger Kass, recounts the secret war to save songbirds. Footage was shot in Cyprus, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Vivid images show very angry poachers swearing and chasing members of the activist group.
Franzen said in the documentary: “We may be a little crazy but the situation in the Mediterranean is enough to drive you crazy.”
In his earlier essay Franzen refers to being in Protaras in April to meet four CABS members. The first orchard they walked into “was full of lime sticks straight switches, about thirty inches long, that are coated with the gluey gum of the Syrian plum and deployed artfully, to provide inviting perches, in the branches of low trees.”
Franzen says the CABS team rubbed the sticks in the dirt to neutralise the glue. “All the sticks had feathers on them. In a lemon tree, we found a male collared flycatcher hanging upside down like a piece of animal fruit, its tail and its legs and its black-and-white wings stuck in glue.”
A member of the activist group filmed the tiny bird twitching while another took still photographs and said “the photos are important because you win the war in the newspapers, not in the field.”
The 20-page essay on trapping migrant birds in Europe was published in the New Yorker magazine on 26 July, 2010. It was also published in a collection of Franzen’s essays ‘Farther Away’ in April of this year.
BirdLife Cyprus says that massive profits are being made by often organised and ruthless trappers thanks to the largely uncontrolled sale of expensive amelopoulia in law-breaking restaurants.
Bird trapping has been illegal in Cyprus since 1974, when tougher legislation on hunting was introduced. However, enforcement was basically non-existent until the island’s EU accession in 2004.
“The implementation of the law is not strict enough. Poachers should be fined €17,000 and/ or three years imprisonment. However court fines may average around €800, while the profits for trappers are in the order of tens of thousand of euros a year,” the Campaigns Manager of BirdLife Cyprus Martin Hellicar said.
A dozen birds can be sold for €40 or €50, he said. Hellicar also said authorities currently have very limited resources to tackle the extensive bird trapping problem and the organised crime networks involved. A lack of political will has also been claimed to be a reason why the problem is not being tackled correctly.
“The number of birds trapped each year has increased sharply since 2007, and has remained very high for the last three years,” Hellicar said.
“For autumn 2012 it was estimated that 1.6 million birds could have been killed within the survey area and over 2.1 million could have been killed across the whole of Cyprus,” Hellicar said
The indiscriminate nature of mist nets and limesticks means that over 150 different species are affected, 78 of these have a threatened status, causing an ecological disaster, he added.
Some of these threatened species of birds are shrikes, bee-eaters and owls.
Franzen has authored ‘The Twenty-Seventh City,’ ‘Strong Motion,’ and ‘The Discomfort Zone.’ He has also published a collection of essays ‘How to Be Alone’ and a memoir, ‘The Discomfort’, and a translation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. One of his novels ‘The Corrections’ won the 2001 National Book Award and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Franzen lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.
Footage of illegal bird trapping in Cyprus can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Kk4B4YJWiQ.
A trapping report from BirdLife Cyprus can be viewed at http://www.birdlifecyprus.org/en/html-36-Trapping_Reports.html.
For more information email [email protected]